Wednesday, September 7, 2016

#46 STREET LEVEL by Larry Norman (1970)

STREET LEVEL by Larry Norman (1970)
One Way  -  JC-7397
My wife and I have four children between us. She had two daughters when we married. We also have a son and a daughter which sprung from my loins (as Phil Robertson might say). Our youngest, a girl named Annie, is the only one to have seen Larry Norman in person. And she’ll never even remember it.

I was on staff as a Worship & Media Pastor (how do you pastor media?) at a church in Taylors, SC in 2001. A few months after Annie’s birth in July of that year, I caught wind that Larry Norman was coming to the Palmetto state. Never mind that the concert would be in Florence, SC, some 2 and a half hours from our home. And never mind that it was a Saturday night concert and I would have to be at church leading worship the next morning. And never mind that we had an infant daughter and no one to leave her with. At this stage of Larry’s career, one never knew when it might be one’s final opportunity to see and hear him. I explained to my wife that we simply must go. And we did.

We made the trek to a high school gym in a rural area outside of Florence, with newborn in tow. I remember standing in line, waiting for the doors to open. I recall purchasing a Solid Rock CD reissue of Horrendous Disc by Daniel Amos at the “merch” table. And I remember Mr. Norman, dressed in his trademark black from head to toe, singing his classic songs and accompanying himself on piano and acoustic guitar. Singing to a half-full auditorium, his voice was weak and raspy, and he struggled at times to remember song lyrics. He talked. A lot. Armed with biting insight and his ever-present sense of humor, he would share stories and provide piercing commentary on the songs and on various political, social and/or religious issues.

There was a disturbing kerfuffle. At one point, Larry was talking about how Elvis Presley stole gospel music from blacks (or something like that). About that time, a group of black students got up and walked out, led by their chaperone. Larry noticed this as it was happening and he stopped in mid-sentence.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Are you guys leaving?”

No answer.

“We don’t want you to leave. Was it something I said?”

The students and their adult leader ignored Larry’s questions and continued on their way out of the gym. Once they were gone, Larry looked out at the remaining audience members and asked, “Was it because I mentioned black people?” drawing nervous laughter from the crowd.

Larry Norman in concert near Florence, SC in 2001

When the concert was over, we got into our minivan – with four kids, of course, we had a minivan – and drove all the way back home (I had to be at the piano bright and early the next morning). My daughter Annie now has bragging rights as the only Bachmann kid to have ever been in the same room with Larry Norman (never mind that she slept through the whole thing). And I had witnessed a Larry Norman live performance for the 4th time. 

Little did I know it would be the last time I would ever see him.

In 1969 Larry Norman touched off a revolution. He turned Christendom on its ear and shared Jesus with the world in a culturally relevant way with an album called Upon This Rock on Capitol Records. It was, for the most part, a polished, professional album that spoke to Christians and seekers alike. There was straight-ahead Jesus Rock (even though no one used that term yet), Beatlesque harmonies, humor, clever analogies, an instant-classic youth group sing-along, an end-times ballad for the ages, great production values (for 1969), and just enough weirdness to help establish Larry as a mysterious troubadour-for-God with star power. The problem was that Capitol didn’t understand what to do with this seemingly new genre of music, so they sold Upon This Rock to Impact Records, a “contemporary” imprint of the Benson Company headquartered in Nashville. Impact wanted to reach “the kids out there” but they just didn’t know what to do with this Norman character. I mean, here was Larry, shirtless on the front cover, flying through the air in a Superman pose…with a song that mentioned “the pill”…and another that was downright spooky strange (The Last Supper)...not to mention that much of the album was considered radical rock and was all a bit much. Upon This Rock sold few copies in mom-and-pop-owned Christian bookstores.

Meanwhile, Larry continued to write and perform in the LA area, attracting a following. He wrote a column in the Hollywood Free Paper and played live as often as he could at coffeehouses and youth rallies. But he needed to record again. It’s been said that he wanted to make a raw, stripped down album that would appeal to the hippies, the flower children, the street people. 

And so he did. He called it Street Level

It was an album that would establish Larry Norman as, I believe, a musical prophet to a generation.

Pat Boone

Mainstream entertainer Pat Boone had surrendered his life to Jesus and had experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Somehow, Pat crossed paths with Larry and loaned him $3,000 to work on what would become three underground classics: Street Level and Bootleg by Norman, and Born Twice by Randy Stonehill. Larry and Randy were given after-midnight access to a recording studio where these now-classic audio artifacts from the early days of the Jesus Movement were shaped and formed. (And this would be a good time to once again say “thank you” to Pat Boone for the role he played in financing, encouraging and promoting early Jesus Music. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.)

So this LP was released independently on Larry's own One Way Records, which became a very cool pit stop between major label album contracts.

Larry talks about his motivation for Street Level: “I spent two years trying to create a message and making cassettes so I could give them to people I was witnessing to because most street people and hippies thought Upon This Rock was ‘plastic,’ which was anathema to the hipsters who were begging for spare change and scrounging for drugs. Street Level opened a lot of doors into those people’s heads so I could keep talking to them about Jesus.”

Street Level was sold mostly by mail order and at concerts.

Now, if you know anything about Larry Norman’s music, you know that the boy was never one for just keeping things simple. He often released multiple versions of albums under multiple album numbers, with different track listings, and on multiple labels. And that whole confusing dynamic might have begun here with Street Level. Get a load of how one website explains it:

The original One Way album has a different B-side than the 1971 & 1972 issues (there are probably also post '72 releases on One Way). It was released as a "limited edition" first (with no song titles or any other additional information on the back, 1970) and then as an "underground edition" and an "underground edition" (with a space - both had the song titles handwritten on the back, early 1971). The "Underground Edition" first appeared with the cover photo inverted. The "Underground" gold label version has 7937 on the cover and 7397 on the labels. Number 7397 is also on the labels of the "Limited Edition" but this one has no number on the cover. My version of the 1971 release has 7397 on the cover and 3973 on the (baby blue) labels. There are many different label colors, too. Some were issued with an insert, others were not.

Are you kidding me?!

The reasoning or logic behind all of the labels and numbers and different editions is beyond me. That said, there are mainly two different versions of Street Level. There was an original version released in 1970. It is very rare; there are only 400 or so copies said to exist. Vinyl copies of the original 1970 album are said to have sold between collectors for as much as $300.

The second version had a completely different track listing on Side Two. Side One was the same (except that the opening spoken word track was called Poem on the 1970 version and First Day in Church on the 1971 version). 

Apparently, there was a 2001 CD issued that combined the tracks from both albums.

As with many of Larry's albums, the two album sides of Street Level were each given a separate focus. Side One was taken from a live 1969 concert at Don Williams' Hollywood Presbyterian Church and are thematically unified; Side Two features studio tracks and demos that Larry recorded with the help of a crack band known as White Light (Randy Stonehill, Fred Bova, Glenn Selwitz, and Hilly Hillman).

As I've mentioned before, the very idea of album sides is lost on Millennials and Generation Snowflake, who prefer to download specific songs. Many people under thirty not only fail to understand what a concept album is...they don't even understand the concept of what an album is! Which is a little sad. Larry Norman and a handful of other artists in the CCM world went to great lengths (at times) to differentiate between album sides or to tell an over-arching story that provided context and continuity throughout an album. All of that is gone now. But we can at least continue to admire it from the days when it was at least attempted (and sometimes brilliantly executed).  

Larry Norman was an unconventional artist throughout his career. I could cite example upon example...but you need look no further than the opening grooves of Street Level. Opening a rock and roll album with a spoken word track...a 6-minute spoken word in which the artist plays a character and speaks in a foreign accent? Yeah, that was extremely unconventional. It was to Larry's benefit, as it added to the mystique, the weirdness of this pale guy with the long, blond hair. 

First Day In Church was a witty poem (either written or co-written by Nigel Goodwin?) and Larry seems to have the audience in the palm of his hand during the monologue. Despite the laughs, this spoken word performance delivers a sobering message in a powerful way; CCM historian Ken Scott called it "an enlightening, pointed  jab at how un-churched youth might react when attending a traditional service." In fact, the humor actually helps to soften the accusation of the piece -- that "church" had become "middle class" and showed little or no desire for relevance to nonbelievers. 

Keep in mind that this was 1970. No Christian radio station played "Jesus Rock," and few if any "Christian bookstores" would've been willing to stock and sell a record of this type. Larry's stated desire was to get this album in the hands of non-Christians. So, while the lyric content was considered daring and controversial by some, it was intended to catch the ear of an unchurched audience and it spoke a language they understood. After all, mentioning long hair, tight jeans, knife fights, "smokin' cigs," and "sucking Candies" was not the way to gain popularity among 'church ladies' in the early 70s. First Day In Church also contains probably the first and maybe the only instance of a homosexual being referred to as "a queer" on a Jesus Rock album. (Remember, Larry was acting in this song...playing a part.)

Late in the track, these lines jump out at me...

But let me tell you what I feel 
I feel we need someone who’ll deal in words and thoughts 
And things that’s real — I’d listen to what he’d say 
Me mum once said, “Son, Jesus came to help young men like you” 
But Jesus came so long ago, mum 
And I don’t think it’s true 
But is there anyone here, who can explain to me, right now 
Is Christ a myth? 
A madman’s whim? 
Some say that Christ can cure our sin 
Is there a way to contact Him? 
Or will I die not knowing how? 
Listen, I only came to church to see if they could offer hope 
But everything that happened there, was way outside my scope


We have the benefit of hindsight, but how interesting to note that Larry Norman spent the important years of his ministry/recording career answering those questions about Jesus. And he answered them "in words and thoughts and things that's real." He had many faults, all of which have been discussed in a previous post and hashed and rehashed elsewhere. But he did point people to Christ. And he offered them hope.  

The track ends with a gentle rebuke of a Church that was pretending "not to hear" the cries of "the least of these."

You know, like afterwards, outside, was a beggar on the grass 

He held his hand out to the people 
They'd smile, then they’d pass 
I’m sure he reached for something real 
For something more than cash 
He begged them for a little cheer 
And they all pretended not to hear 
I get the message, loud and clear
Church is middle class

There's no applause at the end of the poem; the track immediately fades to silence, and the listener is left to contemplate the meaning of the monologue and the mission of the Church in the world today. It is as powerful and effective today as it was in 1970. 

The next two songs on Side One of Street Level were eerily prophetic.

I know that Larry was involved on the ground floor, so to speak, of a charismatic home church or Bible study that later became the Vineyard movement, but I don't know that he ever claimed to be a prophet in the way that title and/or gift was explained and discussed by Paul in the New Testament. But something was going on here. It's almost as if Larry was writing lyrics ripped from Drudge Report or Huffington Post headlines today. 

The word is revolution 
But no one's fired the shot
Each side has its battle plans
A million counterplots
And the world is closely watching
As we near the battle line
But if you're truly wise
You'll keep your eyes on Palestine

The water is polluted
And the air is filled with death
Someday it won't be easy
To stop and catch your breath
It's all in Revelation
It's part of the design
And if you're truly wise
You'll keep your eyes on Palestine

I marched for peace in Washington
When things were getting hot
I gave blood in Chicago
Went anemic on the spot
I would have hitchhiked to Toronto
But it's all a waste of time
So I'm writing down this song to you
To sing and pass along to you
And if you're truly wise
You'll keep your eyes on Palestine

This stripped-down, live version of Peace Pollution Revolution has a more somber and intimate feel than the bouncy, island-themed version released as an MGM single in 1972. It also demonstrates Larry's ability to wade into the political arena, very effectively and apparently with no fear at all. In fact, throughout the early 70s, he would move with ease from songs about faith in Christ to human love songs to fairly radical political statements.

Perhaps the most radical of his political songs was up next. I cried the first time I heard Right Here In America. I remember being so struck by not only the warning delivered in the lyric but also the chilling feeling that accompanies the track. It's very difficult to describe. As if speaking from a direct download from the Holy Spirit, Larry sang to the church and warned of literal persecution that is coming. And now, some 40 years later, it is upon us. The beginning stages, at least. As I write this, during the past year Christians have been fined for their desire to not participate in homosexual "weddings." American Christians have lost their homes and businesses for daring to stand up against a government that seeks to redefine marriage and family while demanding allegiance to sexual perversion. Within the past year, a county clerk in Kentucky was jailed -- jailed -- because of her Christian beliefs. Christian schools and universities are in the crosshairs of the Obama administration because they don't want to provide abortifacients under the guise of "health care." And Hillary Clinton has mused aloud that people who oppose abortion on religious grounds need to get their minds right and change their beliefs. Yes, we know that the United States Constitution guarantees in plain language that Congress shall make no law denying any American the free exercise of his or her faith. But we are seeing the Constitution trampled and ignored by the courts today. 

And to think it might happen right here in America

I believe that Larry Norman was delivering a prophetic message from God Himself when he penned and performed this unforgettable folk ballad. 

I'm going to resist the urge to reprint the lyrics here and encourage you to listen to the song instead, as I believe that it's much more impactful that way.

By the way, the Church is also in for a fair amount of criticism and warning in this song. Placing budgets and buildings ahead of ministry to people...again, quite prophetic if you ask me. It's as if Larry could see the so-called megachurch movement and was warning us some forty years ago. When churches grow so large, worship becomes a show, pastors become celebrities, accountability is a thing of the past, and millions of dollars are required just to keep the machine humming. We can't say we weren't warned.

It's not a beautiful song. It's not difficult to play or sing. It's actually a very plain, quite simple song that plods along for some seven minutes and fourteen seconds. But it's moving. And it's one of the most important warnings we've ever been given by a singer/songwriter of contemporary Christian music. 

Toward the end of the song, Larry imparts words of wisdom to all who've ever been caught up in peace marches, nuclear freeze rallies and the like:

I'm not talkin' religion, I'm talkin' 'bout Jesus
Put all your plans on the shelf
Let's stop marching for peace, and start marching for Jesus
And peace will take care of itself

Larry's signature classic, I Wish We'd All Been Ready wraps up Side One of Street Level. Many of Larry's songs appear in different versions on different albums; such is the case here. A better, more slickly produced version of I Wish We'd All Been Ready had already appeared on Upon This Rock in '69 and another would appear on Only Visiting This Planet in '72. The Street Level version, in keeping with the rest of the album, was raw and haunting. Larry's voice trembles as he sings, adding to the somber mystery of this classic song about the Second Coming of Jesus. That said, if I was going to choose only one version of I Wish We'd All Been Ready to listen to for the rest of my life...this wouldn't be the one. 

Side Two of the original LP release of Street Level contained I Am The Six O'clock News, She's A Dancer, I Don't Wanna Lose You, The Price Of Living, and Sigrid Jane. These are songs about life and love that essentially keep Larry's faith on the back burner. Two of them are better experienced on other releases from Larry's active period in the early 70s; and all of them were included in several retrospectives that Larry released in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s just to keep money coming in from collectors and devoted fans. The Street Level label says these are selections from a rock musical titled ‘Lion’s Breath.’

The Vietnam war was extremely divisive and controversial and was a flashpoint for generational conflict. With I Am the Six O'clock News, Larry wades into the controversy and gets political once again (at one point, he yells, "Get back from Vietnam!"). The anti-war song is sung from the point of view of a news correspondent covering the conflict. 

I'm taking pictures of burning houses
Colored movies of misery
I hear the sound of guns
How red the mud becomes
I've got a close-up view

I am, I am, I am
The six o'clock news
What can I do?
All those kids without shoes
What can I do?
Military coups
What can I do?

This version is rough and raw. One reviewer called it "fuzz rock." It's a fascinating piece of history that reveals, lyrically, the depth of Larry's artistry (can you even imagine Love Song or Honeytree recording a song like this in the early 70s?). But the definitive version is found on Larry's 1972 masterpiece Only Visiting This Planet.  

Interestingly, the term 'color TV' is used, reminding us that color television was a novelty and a luxury when many of us were young. And the song ends with Larry singing the abbreviated names of the "big three" TV networks...reminding us that not all that long ago, there were only three TV networks. Time flies, huh?

She's A Dancer is yet another song that's better experienced on another album. The classic version of this song is found on 1973's So Long Ago the Garden. It's a tranquil ballad that many believe was actually describing a difficult period from Larry's own adolescence.  

I Don't Wanna Lose You is a gritty, bluesy love song that is somewhat negative and whiny. I don't know why any woman would be attracted to a guy that sounds this insecure and desperate. Was it autobiographical or just a pop song?   

And then there was The Price of Living. If this was the first song I'd ever heard by Larry Norman, I might've never listened to another one! This reminds me of an early 70s show tune accompanied by simple piano chords. It's one of Larry's worst-ever vocals. Maybe this performance was intentional, just for the sake of being weird...who really knows? Larry seems to have written this one from the perspective of a kid in an orphanage.

Rounding out the original version of the album was a rollicking love song called Sigrid Jane. It's an interesting track. One reviewer called it "repetitive." "Jane" was described by said reviewer as "a plain, insane, strange, troublesome lady." 

This original group of songs on Side Two of Street Level was not at all among Larry's best output. On this version of the album, Side One did the heavy lifting.

Now, Side Two of the 1971 version of Street Light included some of Larry's signature classics...songs that traded not just in weirdness and earthly romance, but in Larry's Christian faith as well.

Baby Out of Wedlock became an early favorite. It was a testimony song, describing one man's journey to salvation. Like many of the songs on Street Level, it's a bit of a rough recording. Some have intimated that the song was actually true and that Larry fathered an illegitimate child as a young man (in addition to Daniel Robinson). This has not been substantiated. By the way, Larry also sings about doing time in the Big House in the song's second verse. No word yet on whether Larry ever served a prison term (and no accusations to that effect as far as I know). 

I do take issue with one lyric line in Baby Out of Wedlock: the Lord does not "take away your problems, one by one" when you surrender your life to Him. To the contrary, Jesus said, "In the world, you will have tribulation." He promised that we would experience persecution. So the Jesus took away all my problems line is problematic. But apart from that, this piano-based track is a real gem that displays Larry's sense of humor.

It's a rough studio recording, with the band Larry called White Light.

I had a baby out of wedlock 
Her old man got me in a headlock
I was an unwed father 
But don't bother feeling sorry for me

I took a lot of LSD
I smoked a lot of marji-weenie
But it did not help me
It did not set me free

Jesus, why'd You go and do it
Why’d You help a guy like me
You saved me, You forgave me
And I swear You set me free

You took away my problems
One by one
I guess You knew what You was doing
When you sent Your Son

Next up was another classic, again played on piano: One Way. I first heard this song on In Another Land, so this raw version, mistakes and all, leaves a little to be desired. Still, it's quite powerful to hear Larry sing about what became the definitive symbol of the Jesus Movement:

One way, one way to heaven
Hold your fingers high
One way, free and forgiven
Children of the sky

Two roads diverged in the middle of my life
I heard the poet say
I took the one less traveled by
And that’s made the difference
Every night and every day, I say

One way, one way to heaven
Hold up high your hand
Follow, free and forgiven
Children of the lamb

Blue Shoes White is another testimony track describing God's transforming power. It has a rowdy, garage band quality.  

An abbreviated version of I've Searched All Around would later appear on In Another Land, and the production values on that version would do this great song proud. Here, it's another ragged recording. But the song is yet another classic. Who but Larry could pen lines like these:

I've searched all around the world to find a grain of truth
I've opened the mouth of love and found a wisdom tooth

Drugs were quite specifically referenced in Baby Out of Wedlock, and it happens again on No More L.S.D. For Me. Illegal, recreational drug use was central to the experience of the hippies, and Larry confronts it head on, but also offers hope through Jesus.

No more L.S.D. for me
I met the Man from Galilee
And He saved my soul, made me whole and Heaven is my home

He takes good care you know
He’s everywhere you go
He fed me bread and He fixed my head
Untangled all my threads

Sung in a plaintive voice over piano, Larry delivers an overtly evangelistic plea...

Take a chance with Jesus, I highly recommend it
Let Him change your heart, let Him in
Take a chance with Jesus
Ask Him in and forget your sins
I’m so happy, yes I am
I’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb 

Larry's performance here, while far from perfect, is powerful and effective. Toward the end of the song, he seamlessly doubles back into Baby Out of Wedlock.

The garage band (AKA White Light) is back on the record's final cut. Here, it's called Jim Ware's Blues. You probably know it better by a different title: Why Don't You Look Into Jesus. This song would belong on any list of essential songs of the Jesus Movement (if there were any such thing). It is streetwise, raw, rough, and unapologetically evangelistic. Larry paints a very vivid and depressing picture of life without Christ and then presents Jesus as the ultimate answer. One reviewer called it the best Christian rock song ever written.  

Sipping whiskey from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows ‘til you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf

Yellow fingered from your cigarettes
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He got the answers

Gonorrhea on valentine’s day
You’re still looking for the perfect lay
You think rock’n’roll will set you free
Honey, you’ll be deaf before you’re thirty-three

Shooting junk ‘til you’re half insane
Broken needle in your purple vein
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He got the answers

Better versions of this amazing song can be found on both Only Visiting This Planet and In Another Land

Street Level was recorded in a “sparse, rugged, homemade style.” Larry himself called the album “choppy, gritty and under-produced.” So, in a sense, Larry started the same way he finished. During the final decade or two of his life, he released lots of live concert CDs and bootleg VHS videos that were also sparse, rugged, homemade, choppy, gritty and, well, not really produced at all. But I digress.

Jesus Rock historian Ken Scott calls Street Level "an underground classic if there ever was one." It is beyond doubt an indispensable audio artifact from very early in the Jesus Movement, giving us a glimpse into Larry's Norman's unique talent, his grasp of the times, and his marketing genius. Hey, could you have made three records with a $3,000 loan from Pat Boone, let alone three underground classics? Yeah, probably not.

Larry would soon set his sights on another very important underground release before recording the albums for which he will forever be remembered. 

Bill Glover, original drummer for Petra

Recently Bill Glover, original drummer for the band Petra, had this to say about Larry Norman: "We did a lot of concerts with Larry back in the early to mid-'70s. He was a cynical individual around us and other Christians, as well. He made us uneasy. He seemed unapproachable. I don't think he really enjoyed performing for Christians. I believe it was kind of like a necessary evil for him to perform in Christian concerts. In my humble opinion, he needed to sell records to support his street ministry. He was a soft-spoken individual and opened up only in his element, which was being an evangelist on the street."

One line jumps out at me from Bill's recollection...

He made us uneasy.

Yes, he did. He made Christians uneasy with the blunt, direct language he used in his songs. He made religious leaders and music industry types uneasy. He made concert audiences uneasy. He made so-called mom and pop bookstore owners uneasy. He made non-Christians uneasy by boldly presenting Jesus Christ as the only way to Heaven.

As Bill Glover said, Larry Norman was certainly an evangelist to the street people. He had no designs on founding a new genre of music. He just wanted to tell people about Jesus.

And that made the devil himself uneasy.

This album gives us a close-up look at how God was drawing young people to Himself through music as the 60s gave way to the 70s. 

It's not a bird's eye, it's much closer than that. 

You might even say it was taken from street level.